Born March 3, 1853 in southern Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh, the infamous Dutch Post-Impressionist artist, tortured soul and a key figure in Modern Art. Biographies abound in Van Gogh's dramatic and psychological personal life as a troubled man with mental health issues that lead to his own suicide at the young age of 37, but here I'd like to explore what makes Van Gogh unique as a painter. His brushwork and use of bold colors is the most expressive and powerful of arguably any artist in the history of Western Art. Although I cannot say I understand a lot of his work, in particular his portraits, flower arrangements and street scenes, nonetheless it is his use of color and paint that I find fascinating and worth delving further into. For those wishing to read more about his life, click here.
Of his numerous self-portraits he painted, above is a legendary example of his idiosyncratic technique. Look up close and those seemingly neat arrangement of pointillist brushstrokes become a wild panoply of muted complementary colors. Van Gogh was always experimenting, and here he plays with value and hues in a way not quite conceived before. His jacket appears childishly painted from a distance, but up close those complementary blobs of color vibrate as if a gel-like substance. My favorite element has to be the background, where he repeats the jacket motif with even more heightened vividness by using warmer tints of his reds and greens. The highlights on his forehead repeat this vertical-brushstroke with a refined accuracy, considering how surreal this portrait actually is. His use of greens in the shadows and pinks in the mid-tones—even giving himself green "freckles"—our eyes seemlessly blend together all these tones into an incredible Post-Impressionist portrait that exemplifies Van Gogh to me at his sharpest and most focused, artistically.
I love the character and personality Van Gogh imbued this simple subject with. Using a monochromatic palette that was rare for his work, Van Gogh's choice of worn shoes under a warm, faint light with a dim shadow is brilliant. The combination of his impasto with blended values helps not only to illustrate a familiar object, but to tell a story. I feel that this was one of the few times he demonstrated this much personality and narrative, and had he continued in this vein his work may have taken a very different direction. Yellow ochre, white, raw umber perhaps, and not much else. Look up on the top left and his signature appears in a reddish tone that blends into the green shadows. Truly inspiring.
Cypresses and Two Women, 1890
Another fantastic example of his brushwork. Impressionism took color and texture to blend tone and value together to appear harmonious from a distance, but Van Gogh took brushwork and color to make us look even closer instead of stand farther back. Dream-like wisps of thick, glossy tones that exemplify Van Gogh's idea of color resonating the inner emotion he was trying to express. What is interesting to me is how he decided to transform the shapes and forms of the clouds and trees into his own surreal world. The brushstrokes themselves seem to have transformed his ideas entirely of how to depict the world. I can only imagine what kind of reaction he got from his contemporaries and citizens who first seen this work. It strikes me that this incredible period was wildly experimental—the mid to late 1800's—laying the seeds of everything from photography to Impressionism to Realism and Symbolism.
White House at Night, 1890
(Warning: extremely large image size. May slow your computer once opened.)
Van Gogh uses a lot of dry brush and wet in this painting, curiously. The bushes in front of the house once again vibrate with color, and the clouds have a soothing cool palette, although the moon and its affected glow is oddly disturbing and interesting. The fascination with red and green is a primary motif in Van Gogh's work, and we see it repeatedly. Here it makes the building itself vibrate while still capturing its conventional presence. Van Gogh's dry brush with red over darks on the spanish tile roof adds texture and personality to this painting. Even the ground is scumbled with muted ochre tones and white that give this an odd quality. There is a déjà vu and surreal quality to this house that is difficult to put into words, and is one of the reasons why I am drawn to this particular piece over some of his other works.
Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888
This is probably my all-time favorite Van Gogh, and for several reasons. It is his rare use of perspective here that draws me in, along with a strong contrast of yellow and green against blue with the distance fading into darkness. The shapes here are less stylized, compared to his other works, but he invents a dynamic approach to the sidewalk with warm and black squiggles. And the figures are painted in vibrant colors also, something he usually does not do. However, the sky has a particular quality that is more Impressionist than his other works, whereby squinting here we see a sky that glows gently with oversized stars. Van Gogh must have enjoyed being in this place very much, and definitely wanted to capture as much energy and presence as he possibly could here. The emotion he was trying to convey resonates with his primary sense, color, of course.
Field with Poppies, 1889
A clever view looking down a verdant field of contrasting textures and colors. I admire how Van Gogh can simplify a scene such as this with definitive brushwork, although I can sense that he probably didn't like painting trees much, or at least an impatience in depicting them. What is also curious here is how he uses black throughout the composition to add defined edges, of course, but it also ties in the entire color scheme. Those greens would have much less impact without the use of black here. And the red accents of the flowers is so distinctive that once again, without it our eye would not know where to glance and would gloss over the entire composition. We can all learn something here in that our tendencies as Realists to tone down our darks and accents, never using straight color from the tube...Van Gogh breaks all the rules and yet it is alluring and rich, and we can still feel the presence of this field.
Houses at Auvers, 1890
While it may appear fun and cute, I can feel alot of frustration in this painting. Look at the way he painted the sky and ground and we can easily discern a complete disregard for perspective or even any type of Impressionism. Even the thatched roof in the foreground seems to be melting under its own weight. Still, Van Gogh uses his greens very effectively here and that strip of red across the roof of the middleground house is captivating, along with that cool blue shadow it is bathed in. Van Gogh does have a perceptive eye for composition. Auvers is located northwest of Paris and was a popular spot for 19th century painters who were inspired by its rustic French charm, but of all the paintings it inspired this one is the most unique and idiosyncratic. Van Gogh is buried in Auvers.
Landscape at Dusk, 1885
More of an oil sketch than a painting, it is nonetheless brilliant. I saw this painting in Madrid two years ago and I wish now I spent more time observing it. Van Gogh suggests those distant trees with just a diluted flat brush and it works perfectly. Note how much green he scumbles onto the shadow areas, while that sunset glows like an smoldering fire. Van Gogh demonstrates how important a role emotion plays in art, how our perception is really influenced by emotion and the poetry of life is about emotion. If it doesn't move us in some way, it isn't really worth painting. It won't linger in our minds. Van Gogh may have had serious mental issues, but he understood how art impacts us.
Starry Night, 1888
A fairly large painting I had the pleasure of seeing at the D'Orsay in Paris, I remember how pleasurable it was to look it. Van Gogh tackles a concept the Impressionists never dared to attempt: painting a night scene under the stars. Like his Cafe Terrace at Night, Van Gogh loved the night as many of us artists do, and he paints this scene with a more accurate palette than normal. Again, Van Gogh uses black predominantly and while many artists would have hesitated since mixing it with yellow produces green, Van Gogh simply decides that black is too important to ignore and uses it anyway. The strong blues counteract the tinges of green and despite a lack of subject matter or distinct shapes here, the feeling of being under this sky surrounded by the stars is truly something to experience in person.
Van Gogh's tragic and depressing life, along with his unstable personality, affected his ability to sell his work but in the hindsight of our modern society it only made him a better artist. Being concerned with appealing to potential clients would have diluted his raw energy and emotion to something that would have been copied and imitated by fake imposters. While he could have been treated and diagnosed more properly, we were robbed of what could have developed in his later years and how he would have perceived his world. Unfortunately, his uncontrollable fire burnt himself out too soon for us to see what possible future that would have been. Today his art is worth millions and he never could have imagined such a dramatic turn in appreciation. Sadly, most only know of the guy who cut his own ear off and had no lasting friends except for his brother. Van Gogh is a stark reminder for us all that what we see is really a mirror of our own soul...that posterity is far more important than celebrity..and that a destructive mind is the worst prison. Art will always be freedom.
Van Gogh Museum
Vincent Van Gogh on Artsy